Sai Ranganathan: Going Eco with SensorFlow


Sai Ranganathan: Going Eco with SensorFlow

Singapore based-smart energy management startup SensorFlow is greening the hospitality industry. We speak to CEO and co-founder Sai Ranganathan.

Saikrishnan Ranganathan found his calling quite early on in his career.

Over two years ago, at age 25, the technology analyst left a promising job at Goldman Sachs, to dive head-first into the challenging world of startup and entrepreneurship. 

His motivation was quite simple, yet profound.

“There is a very limited sort of time to make an impact in the world, and you have to pick the right things to spend that time on.”

“To me, the immediate threat to humanity is global warming," says the Indian national, now based in Singapore.

Armed with passion, and gumption honed from a brief stint in a home automation startup, the young lad - better known as Sai - started smart energy management company SensorFlow with Max Pagel, whom he met at the Entrepreneur First - a tech accelerator program.

There is a very limited sort of time to make an impact in the world, and you have to pick the right things to spend that time on

“It just made sense - everybody should be trying to make a change towards things that have an impact.” says Sai, recollecting a conversation he had with Max over a plate of pasta when they conceptualised SensorFlow.

“One of the things that we found was that the majority of the energy consumption (roughly 60-70 percent) comes from air-conditioners.”

Anchored by its main product, a sensor device that controls air-conditioning based on occupancy in the room, the duo aims to make efficient energy usage a reality - starting with hotels.

“if you look at the hotel industry they spend eight percent of their revenue on energy costs and they have margins of between eight to 10 percent. And a large part of their consumer base is getting more eco-conscious. People are actually seeking out hotels that have sustainable practices in place.”

As the device, a plastic palm-sized sensor, could be fitted onto existing air conditioning units with little hassle, hotels are open to giving SensorFlow a try.

“We went to a few hotels to show them our prototype, and they loved it!”

“We have an occupancy sensor, an energy meter and a smart thermostat - it literally takes us 10 minutes to install. It’s completely wireless and fully retrofitted.”

This is music to the hoteliers’ ears, which goal is to minimise inconvenience during guests' stay; an upgrade promising cost saving at zero installation fee, and poses little disruption is very much welcomed.

“First, we remove the existing thermostat and put ours in. We attach an occupancy sensor to the ceiling, add an energy meter in the distribution box - and we are done! The system will detect when hotel guests leave the room and it automatically increases the temperature to a comfortable (range) like 25-26 degrees Celsius.”

“The hotels said the device helped reduce energy cost between 20-50 percent,” says Sai.

“This directly impacts their profit margin by 15-30 percent. That’s the kind of impact that we saw.”

SensorFlow - Helping Hotels Be More Eco-conscious

Since the first SensorFlow installation in August 2017, the company has since grown to have over 70,000 rooms in their pipeline to be fitted with the device, ranging from mid-sized to major hotels in Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia.

While there are already smart energy management systems rolled out in big chain hotels, Sai believes SensorFlow has the advantage to scale by providing easy access to any hotel owners that want to take a greener route. No upfront cost is also a key enticing factor.

Sustainability is no longer something that only big brand hotels need to consider

“Sustainability is no longer something that only big brand hotels need to consider,” says Sai.

“I think what makes us stand out from our competitors from a technology perspective, is that we install energy meters in every single room, so hoteliers can see the impact of savings that they have,” says Sai.

Hotel owners who sign up for the service (“We provide them a software subscription, along with the hardware”) can also access and use data collected through SensorFlow through a cloud-based system.

“We analyse this data to do a number of things. We give the hotels an understanding of what rooms are functioning well, and which ones don’t, from the standpoint of air-conditioning.”

“A lot of times, guests complain that the room is either too hot or too cold, likely due to a broken air-conditioning system. So, we use data to predict when this will happen and we help them fix the problem before any guest complain.”

“Second, we also use this data to help them understand occupancy,” Sai explains further. “The hotels get a heat-map of guests’ movement - when do mosts guests leave the hotel, and when they come back.”

“This is useful for a number of reasons. One is operational capabilities (you can understand when to send your housekeeping staff to these rooms) and because we have occupancy sensors in the room, the housekeeping staff can see in real time if a room is occupied or not.”

“So you no longer have this problem, where housekeeping is knocking but you are in the room -  it’s completely inefficient.”

SensorFlow makes money through its subscription service but the fee is tied to savings a hotel makes from using the device.

“What we ensure is that the amount of money that the hotels pay us, is less than the amount of money that they save.”

“So, if I save them USD 100 a month, I’m only charging them USD 60-70,” Sai elaborates. “So without paying anything upfront, they start saving money from day one.”

“We install energy meters in every single room. So, they can actually see the impact of the savings. Because quite often, when you are looking at the electricity bill for the entire hotel, you don't fully understand the impact.”

SensorFlow - Paving a Green Path Through Wireless IoT

SensorFlow’s early rollout was focused on smaller, boutique hotels. But after having the device trialled - and concept proved - at notable properties, including Alila Hotels & Resorts in Bali, the startup is making headways into major hotels across the region.

“We are getting into bigger brands such as the Ascott in Singapore, Grand Swiss in Bangkok and two more properties in Hong Kong.”

One of the things that we always do when entering new markets is build up the client reference

“One of the things that we always do when entering new markets is build up the client reference,” says Sai.

The clean-tech firm, having recently raised USD2.7 million in Series A funding, is ramping up expansion, as it aims to hit a target of 800,000 installations by 2020.

“We are already very much in Southeast Asia, and is entering Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.”

“Malaysia is a big market for us,” he says. “We are just weeks away from closing with three big hotels and have (the devices) installed. We had very successful trials with them. They saw about 40 percent savings on energy costs."

“We are also looking at partnerships. One of the ways that we try to enter new markets is through partnerships with local distributors and service providers.”

Sai has his eyes set on taking Sensorflow further abroad, with plans to expand to Europe, the United States, Middle East, New Zealand and Australia over the next two to three years.

“One of the things that we realised really quickly was that the reason why corporates and industry (players) do not adopt sustainable practices is because it has never been profitable for them.”

“We now have the technology to make sustainability profitable, we have the capability to do so now.”

Sensorflow - Sustainable Practices Can Drive Profit